The Divine Right of Kings and the Execution of King Charles I

Ever since I wrote the post Thomas Harrison – Executed whilst cheerful! who was hung drawn and quartered, I have been thinking about the tulmultuous events leading up to the execution of King Charles I.

Regicide as it is known, is very rare in British history and usually when it was comitted, it was done so 1500 or years ago.   Apart from the obvious reasons about how difficult and treasonous this would be and the importance for the well-being of every country to have a strong and legitimate leader; what made it rarer still was the Diving Right of Kings.

The divine right of kings, divine right, or God’s mandate is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm. It implies that only God can judge an unjust king and that any attempt to depose, dethrone or restrict his powers runs contrary to the will of God and may constitute a sacrilegious act. It is often expressed in the phrase “by the Grace of God”, attached to the titles of a reigning monarch.

This had been a concept long before Christianity but it was solidified by the Biblical accounts of King Saul.  In 1 Samuel, where the prophet Samuel anoints Saul and then David as mashiach or king over Israel. The anointing is to such an effect that the monarch became inviolable, so that even when Saul sought to kill David, David would not raise his hand against him because “he was the Lord’s anointed”.

A very similar concept can be found in much of Asia where it is known as  the Mandate of Heaven, which, although similar to the European concept, bore several key differences. While the divine right of kings granted unconditional legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven was dependent on the behaviour of the ruler, the Son of Heaven. Heaven would bless the authority of a just ruler, but it could be displeased with a despotic ruler and thus withdraw its mandate, transferring it to a more suitable and righteous person. This withdrawal of mandate also afforded the possibility of revolution as a means to remove the errant ruler; revolt was never legitimate under the European framework of divine right.   My historic heroes, The Mongols were big believes in the Mandate of Heaven.

Ever since the Magna Carta in 1215, the King was constrained by laws and Parliament though it is fair to still label monarchs for several centuries in practice as being Absolute Monarchs.  King Charles I was the very last of these and he believed that he was ordained by God and that no-one but God had authority to judge or remove him, no matter how hated he was down on Earth.

After a long Civil War, King Charles was finally captured and though it was a controversial thing to do, he was placed on trial in Westminster Hall.    Although Parliament had been involved in earlier centuries with the ending of royal reigns, this was usually at the behest of the monarch rather instigated by Parliament itself.

Charles was accused of treason against England by using his power to pursue his personal interest rather than the good of England. The charge against Charles I stated that the king, “for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented…”, that the “wicked designs, wars, and evil practices of him, the said Charles Stuart, have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation.”The indictment held him “guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.”

 

Court-charles-I-sm

The Trial of King Charles I in Westminster Hall which I can testify remains little changed from the drawing above.

 

Although the House of Lords refused to pass the bill and the Royal Assent naturally was lacking, the Rump Parliament referred to the ordinance as an “Act” and pressed on with the trial anyway. The intention to place the King on trial was re-affirmed on 6 January by a vote of 29 to 26 with An Act of the Commons Assembled in Parliament. At the same time, the number of commissioners was reduced to 135 – any twenty of whom would form a quorum – when the judges, members of the House of Lords and others who might be sympathetic to the King were removed.

The commissioners met to make arrangements for the trial on 8 January when well under half were present – a pattern that was to be repeated at subsequent sessions. On 10 January, John Bradshaw was chosen as President of the Court. During the following ten days, arrangements for the trial were completed; the charges were finalised and the evidence to be presented was collected.

 

Me in Westminster Hall

Myself Standing in the same spot as Obama, Mandela, Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, Gorbachev, De Gaulle and about 900 years of Monarchs. You can see the bases of the statues on the rear wall match those in the drawing of the trial above.

(^^^ You can see an old post and a guided tour of Parliament here.^^^)

The trial began on the 20th January 1649 in Westminster Hall, with a moment of high drama. After the proceedings were declared open, Solicitor General John Cook rose to announce the indictment; standing immediately to the right of the King, he began to speak, but he had uttered only a few words when Charles attempted to stop him by tapping him sharply on the shoulder with his cane and ordering him to “Hold”. Cook ignored this and continued, so Charles poked him a second time and rose to speak; despite this, Cook continued. At this point Charles, incensed at being thus ignored, struck Cook across the shoulder so forcefully that the ornate silver tip of the cane broke off, rolled down Cook’s gown and clattered onto the floor between them. With nobody willing to pick it up for him, Charles had to stoop down to retrieve it himself.

When given the opportunity to speak, Charles refused to enter a plea, claiming that no court had jurisdiction over a monarch. He believed that his own authority to rule had been due to the divine right of kings given to him by God, and by the traditions and laws of England when he was crowned and anointed, and that the power wielded by those trying him was simply that of force of arms. Charles insisted that the trial was illegal, explaining, “No learned lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King… one of their maxims is, that the King can do no wrong.” Charles asked “I would know by what power I am called hither. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful [authority]”. Charles maintained that the House of Commons on its own could not try anybody, and so he refused to plead.

The court proceeded as if the king had pleaded guilty (pro confesso), as was the standard legal practice in case of a refusal to plead. However, witnesses were heard by the judges for “the further and clearer satisfaction of their own judgement and consciences”.  Thirty witnesses were summoned, but some were later excused. The evidence was heard in the Painted Chamber rather than Westminster Hall. King Charles was not present to hear the evidence against him and he had no opportunity to question witnesses.  Though witnesses were gathered across the Kingdom in an attempt to legitimise the hearing.

The King was declared guilty at a public session on Saturday 27th January 1649 and sentenced to death. His sentence read: “That the court being satisfied that he, Charles Stuart, was guilty of the crimes of which he had been accused, did judge him tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of the nation, to be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.” To show their agreement with the sentence, all of the 67 Commissioners who were present rose to their feet. During the rest of that day and on the following day, signatures were collected for his death warrant. This was eventually signed by 59 of the Commissioners, including two who had not been present when the sentence was passed.

It must be said that if the idea of putting the King on trial was controversial then the idea of actually executing him was incredibly divisive but it seems that the conduct and overwhelmingly untrustworthyness of the King meant that it would be too dangerous to expel him from the country or even lock him in prison.

Right up to his death King Charles maintained that he was being unfairly treated and that no earthly court had jurisdiction over him.  Nevertheless he was beheaded in front of the Banqueting House of the Palace of Whitehall on the 30th January 1649 before which he declared that he had desired the liberty and freedom of the people as much as any;

but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having government…. It is not their having a share in the government; that is nothing appertaining unto them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things

During the trial King Charles I disputed the authority of the court and refused to enter a plea. Regardless of the widespread opposition to the trial, a verdict of guilty was pushed through. The death warrant was signed by only 57 of the 159 commissioners of the high court originally established by the Rump, and on 30 January 1649 King Charles I was beheaded outside the Banqueting House on Whitehall.

Contemporary print of the execution of King Charles and latterly The Regicides.

Contemporary print of the execution of King Charles and latterly The Regicides.

After a controversial period of rule by our Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (or President), after a period of negogiations the monarchy was restored.  Although it was agreed that the large majority of people who had enacted controversial deeds on both sides of the war would be pardoned, those who had signed the death warrant of their King would find no safety with every single one of them being put on trial and the vast majority being executed just like Thomas Harrison.  The lucky ones escaped with life imprisonment which in gaols of the time, usually resulted in a short life.

Even those who were dead at the time of the Restoration were not spared and prominent figures such as Oliver Cromwell  were given a posthumous execution: their remains were exhumed, and they were hanged, beheaded and their remains were cast into a pit below the gallows. Their heads were placed on spikes above Westminster Hall the building where the High Court of Justice for the trial of Charles I had sat.

 

Oliver_Cromwell's_head,_late_1700s

The exhumed head of Oliver Cromwell whose body was hung drawn and quartered with his detached and long since dead head stuck on a spike above Parliament.

Despite the huge controversy, it is undeniable that the actions of the Parliamentarians such as Oliver Cromwell went a long way towards producing a more modern style of democracy and politics with the new King being re-instated under a resurgent Parliament and a people that would never again live in absolute fear of their monarch.

 

 

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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4 Responses to The Divine Right of Kings and the Execution of King Charles I

  1. smhusain1 says:

    I think the Civil War had two stages? In both the King lost, the second was obviously after a chance to rule again after proper checks and balances were installed on the King. Why did the British people revert back to the old system of monarchy then? Charles was not a Protestant and the most British subjects were?

    Liked by 1 person

    • After King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell ruled as what today would be called a President. However he was a strict Puritan and is said to have even banned Christmas. His rule had so alienated people that discreet negotiations were made with his son who I believe was living in exile in France. As it turned out, the future Charles II did not have as much interest in politics as his predecessors and was quite into the Social Scene, parties etc. So it suited both sides to have the monarch restored but with many Constitutional powers given to Parliament. This whole situation was progressed and solidified in what is called the Glorious Revolution when the Protestant William and Mary of the Netherlands were invited by Parliament to take the throne so long as they agreed that Parliament was in control of day to day matters of government. This was done to oust a Catholic monarch who immediately fled to France and whose descendant I believe was Bonnie Prince Charlie who returned to leads the Jacobites in their major but eventually doomed efforts to regain the throne.

      Like

  2. Masterfully detailed. Cromwells head on the spike was particularly gruesome!

    Liked by 1 person

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